Congress

Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 8

Mulvaney balks at investigators subpoena, committees drop Vindman and Hill transcripts

Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine shown here arriving at the Capitol for his Oct. 22 deposition, will be one of House Democrats’ first witnesses in public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As House Democrats pivot to the public phase of their impeachment inquiry, they have filled the first slate of open hearings next week with three highly regarded, longtime civil servants to make the case that President Donald Trump should be impeached.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent will testify Wednesday. Taylor’s predecessor in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, will testify on Friday.

All three gave lawmakers blistering accounts of the president’s interactions with the new Ukrainian government. Multiple impeachment witnesses have accused Trump of withholding nearly $400 million of vital military aid from Ukraine and delaying a coveted White House meeting between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as he sought to pressure Zelenskiy into announcing anti-corruption investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and other domestic political rivals.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is did not appear Friday for his scheduled impeachment deposition, defying a subpoena from Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff.

Mulvaney said in his now-infamous news conference in October that Trump sought a quid pro quo where Ukraine would announce the investigations in exchange for a military aid package and a White House meeting.

“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said at the time.

The White House later tried to walk back his comments.

House impeachment investigators on Friday released transcripts of testimony from former National Security Council Russia and Ukraine policy chief Fiona Hill and NSC Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

The impeachment panel has now released eight transcripts of closed-door depositions taken in October as it pivots to public hearings next week.

Here is the latest on the impeachment inquiry:

Two more transcripts: The release Friday of Hill's and Vindman's testimony brings the total count of unsealed transcripts so far to eight.

Hill told lawmakers in her Oct. 14 deposition about the removal of Yovanovitch from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, which she saw as an abuse of the system by allies of the president.

Vindman, who was on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, testified that he raised concerns to his superiors at the NSC about the call. He testified that he was concerned Trump and some of his top aides were attempting to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the president’s domestic political rivals in exchange for military aid and a bilateral meeting at the White House.

‘No ambiguity’: The transcript of Vindman’s testimony tells the story of a deeply unsettled national security expert who believed Trump was demanding a “deliverable” of investigations into the Bidens from Ukraine in exchange for a White House meeting and, later, a military aid package.

“There was no doubt,” Vindman said, when asked by Democrats whether he believed Trump, on his July 25 call with Zelenskiy, was seeking investigations as a “deliverable” to pave the way for a bilateral White House meeting.

 

Vindman listened in on the call and alerted NSC lawyer John Eisenberg to his concerns about Trump’s proposal. Eisenberg ordered his subordinates to stash the transcript of the call on a highly secure server, according to Vindman's testimony.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had received a directive from Mulvaney that the White House meeting would only happen if Ukraine announced investigations into the Bidens and the theory of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani of Ukrainian election interference, he told Vindman, according to the NSC official’s testimony. Sondland later executed that missive, and told Ukrainian officials that they “would have to deliver an investigation into the Bidens,” Vindman testified.

There was “no ambiguity” in Vindman’s mind, he said, that the investigations Sondland referenced in his meeting with the Ukrainians were the requested investigations into Trump’s political rivals.

One of Vindman’s chief concerns was how Zelenskiy announcing investigations into Trump’s political opponents would imperil bipartisan support for Ukraine and its new government.

Losing that bipartisan support in Congress, Vindman said, would put at risk billions of dollars in military aid that the U.S. has given and plans to continue to give to the country as it fights Russian military aggression.

“The amount of money that we’re talking about here, $400 million, might not mean much... in terms of the U.S. budget. ... For a U.S. budget it’s ... a fraction of a fraction. But for the Ukrainians, it amounts to about 10 percent of their military budget, roughly,” Vindman said. “That actually amounts to a significant portion of their GDP because the Ukrainians also spend about 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on defense because they’re fighting an active conflict against the Russians,” he said.

In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian-controlled Crimean Peninsula and also invaded the country's eastern Donbass region. Russian forces still occupy parts of Eastern Ukraine, where it backs Ukrainian separatists.

‘My worst nightmare’: Hill outlined in her deposition concerns she shared with other NSC officials that Trump was dangling a potential White House meeting as an “asset” to manipulate Ukraine into announcing political investigations into the president’s domestic political rivals.

Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, when he specifically mentioned the requested investigations, constituted Hill’s “worst fears and nightmares” in part because they had nothing to do with advancing U.S. national security interests and appeared only to serve the president’s personal interests, she told lawmakers.

“My worst nightmare is the politicization of the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine and, also, the usurpation of authorities, you know, for other people’s personal vested interests,” Hill said.

 

‘Mishmash of conspiracy theories’: Hill also aired her frustration over Yovanovitch’s dismissal, which she attributed to a “mishmash of conspiracy theories” being leveled at Yovanovitch by Giuliani and news outlets that were publishing his since-debunked information.

“There was no basis for her removal. The accusations against her had no merit whatsoever,” Hill told lawmakers. “This was a mishmash of conspiracy theories that, again, I’ve told you, I believe firmly to be baseless, an idea of an association between her and George Soros,” Hill said, adding that similar smear efforts had been tried on her.

Hill told lawmakers that there was widespread concern in the White House about Giuliani’s role in perpetuating the president’s already dark view of Ukrainian politics by feeding him widely discredited conspiracy theories that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that tried to undermine the 2016 U.S. election in favor of the Democrats.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert “spent a lot of time” explaining to the president that Giuliani’s Ukraine theory had no merit.

That theory was the basis of one of the investigations that Sondland, special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and others tried to pressure Ukraine to launch throughout the summer while the U.S. had a hold on much-needed military aid.

“It is a fiction that the Ukrainian Government was launching an effort to upend our election, upend our election to mess with our Democratic systems,” Hill said.

Zelenskiy ultimately did not announce a probe, and the military aid freeze was lifted in September after it had been reported in the media, leading to bipartisan criticism of the Trump administration.

Frontline fighter: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced Friday that GOP Rep. Rick Crawford will temporarily resign from the Intelligence Committee and that Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan will take his place. Jordan has been leading Republicans in the closed-door impeachment inquiry depositions and GOP leadership wants to ensure he has a role in the public hearings.

Jim Jordan has been on the front lines in the fight for fairness and truth. His addition will ensure more accountability and transparency in this sham process,” McCarthy said in a statement.

When the impeachment proceedings have concluded, Jordan will step down and Crawford will rejoin the Intelligence Committee, McCarthy said.

Muting Mulvaney: Trump signaled to reporters Friday he will not allow Mulvaney to testify before the impeachment committees, which issued a subpoena that the former GOP congressman has ignored.

“I don’t want to give credibility to a corrupt witch hunt,” Trump said, before sending a mixed message. “I’d love to have Mick go up, frankly. … I think he’d do great.”

The president claimed he would prefer to allow “all” White House and administration officials testify but “I have to listen to the lawyers to a certain extent — not always.”

‘Kicking their ass’: Trump told reporters Friday that the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry should scrap their planned public hearings because their inquiry is a “hoax.”

Trump also again called for the identity to be revealed of the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint about Trump's call with Zelenskiy set off the probe. And he called for the whistleblower's attorney, Mark Zaid, to be sued “maybe for treason.”

He slammed the Democrats’ inquiry, again saying it doesn’t give him “due process.” Yet, despite that, he said “we're kicking their ass.”

He also said a number of current and former administration officials who testified they saw a quid pro quo with Ukraine over military aid and a meeting with Trump “testified just fine for me.”

Another call to Ukraine: Trump told reporters he is considering releasing a summary of a call he had with Zelenskiy before the July 25 call.

“I will give it if they want it,” he said, referring to House Democrats. “I don’t like doing it because it’s such a bad precedent.”

He also gave his endorsement to the release of any White House-prepared summary of calls between Vice President Mike Pence and Zelenskiy.

“I have no problem,” he said. “It’s up to Mike.”

Who’s this?: Trump also tried to distance himself from Sondland, saying he doesn’t really know the wealthy GOP donor and hotelier.

He also, falsely, said Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, testified there was no quid pro quo demanded of Ukraine’s leader; Sondland initially told investigators that, but altered his testimony this week to say he understood there was indeed a this-for-that demand.

‘Model’ diplomats: Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch have more than seven decades of collective experience in the foreign service, with careers spanning four Republican and two Democratic presidents.

That is no accident. What witnesses say can only go as far as how trustworthy they are, and House Democrats want to introduce their impeachment case to the American people through public servants who they can portray as having spent their lives advancing American values abroad and upholding the Constitution. Taylor, Kent, Yovanovitch and others who are scheduled to testify publicly have variably been called “patriots” and “model” U.S. diplomats over the last month as they have defied White House orders not to comply with the impeachment probe.

Republicans, echoing Trump, have maintained for nearly two years that the multiple investigations into Trump — first by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, later by House Democrats — have been partisan witch hunts perpetrated by Democrats seeking retribution for Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton.

Democrats are hoping that if Americans hear directly from the mouths of nonpartisan career officials, that GOP message will not stick. The witnesses, wary of tarnishing their reputations, went out of their way in previous depositions to emphasize that they prioritize country over the party system.

“My background and experience are nonpartisan and I have been honored to serve under every administration, Republican and Democratic, since 1985,” Taylor said in his opening statement.

Foreign service officers take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” regardless of who is in the Oval Office, some of the impeachment witnesses have said in their testimony.

“I have understood that oath as a commitment to serve on a strictly nonpartisan basis, to advance the foreign policy determined by the incumbent President, and to work at all times to strengthen our national security and promote our national interests,” Yovanovitch, who has worked under the Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump administrations, said in her opening statement to lawmakers in October.

‘Campaign of slander’: In a transcript released Thursday of his closed-door deposition, Kent was critical of Giuliani’s “campaign of slander” against Yovanovitch and other longtime State Department officials, which eventually led to the president recalling Yovanovitch from her post.

The negative information Giuliani spread about Yovanovitch, which he received from former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, has been widely discredited. Lutsenko even later admitted his accusation that Yovanovitch provided him a do-not-prosecute list was false.

Yovanovitch and other State Department officials had called for Lutsenko to be removed when they discovered he was “essentially colluding with a corrupt official” to hamper a worthy investigation into fake passports.

“Based on what I know, Yuriy Lutsenko, as prosecutor general, vowed revenge, and provided information to Giuliani in hopes that he would spread it and lead to her removal. I believe that was the rationale for Yuriy Lutsenko doing what he did,” Kent told lawmakers.

Kent also described in his testimony how Giuliani’s now-indicted Ukrainian business associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman fed false information about Yovanovitch to former Rep. Pete Sessions in 2018 calling into question her loyalty to Trump.

That same day, the Texas Republican wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relaying those loyalty concerns.

Giuliani’s “assertions and allegations against former Ambassador Yovanovitch were without basis, untrue, period,” Kent testified.

Pence adviser testifies: Jennifer Williams, a longtime State Department official who is detailed to work with Vice President Mike Pence and was on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, testified to investigators on Thursday.

Democratic California Rep. Eric Swalwell declined to discuss details of Williams’ testimony, saying he would let her transcript speak for itself when it’s released. But he suggested she affirmed the narrative that’s emerged in others’ testimonies.

“The defense dollars for dirt scheme has come more into focus, and we have not yet seen an arrow going in any other direction than that this was a shakedown led by the president of the United States,” he said.

Swalwell, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that it’s not yet clear whether Williams would be the last witness deposed in the first phase of the inquiry.

In addition to Mulvaney, the committee would still like to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton, whose attorneys said he would fight a subpoena to appear before the committee.

Asked if the idea is to have all depositions completed before the committee begins public hearings Wednesday, Swalwell said, “I don’t think that’s an absolute.”

Bolton bolts: The committee had requested that Bolton give a deposition Thursday and had earlier indicated that he would consider testifying under subpoena, but his counsel informed the Intelligence Committee that he would fight such efforts in court, a committee official said.

“We regret Mr. Bolton’s decision not to appear voluntarily, but we have no interest in allowing the administration to play rope-a-dope with us in the courts for months,” the official said. “Rather, the White House instruction that he not appear will add to the evidence of the president’s obstruction of Congress.”

Democrats hoped to ask Bolton about his concerns that Giuliani was pushing a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine to politically benefit Trump. Those concerns have been brought to light in other testimony investigators have heard from administration and foreign service officials.

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